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Sid Bursten


Brenda Barrie

 
SIDNEY BURSTEN: REB ZALMAN AND ME: A PERSONAL REMEMBRANCE

By Sidney L. Bursten, August 19, 2014

 

 

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi recently died in Boulder, CO, at the age of 89. He spent the last half of his life in the U.S. as a revered scholar, teacher and spiritual leader, but much of his personality and spiritual power actually developed during his nearly two decades in Winnipeg.

 

 

 

 

I started at the University of Manitoba in 1958 and quickly became attached to him as a follower and disciple. He was not only Professor of Jewish Studies, but also head of the university's B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation, a Jewish student organization where I was later vice president. But how he -- and Hillel -- got to be there is a particularly wonderful story:

 

 

 

After WW II, the university outgrew its downtown campus and was moved to the far suburbs, on the site of the old agricultural college. Though Hillel was started at the downtown campus in 1946, there were no private buildings anywhere around the new site that could become a meeting place for Jewish students, and the university banned all religious organizations from its facilities. That was no problem for Catholics, Anglicans, Orthodox or other Christian groups, because they could meet in St Paul's College, St John's College, St Andrew's College, etc. -- all on the campus as affiliates -- but there was no Jewish college.

 

 

 

 

A brilliant local B'nai B'rith leader tried to get the university to create a Department of Jewish Studies, but they refused year after year. Finally he came to them with an offer they could not refuse: 

 

 

 

 

"Would you give us our department if we get you one of the biggest celebrities in the world to come to Winnipeg, be your commencement speaker and accept an Honorary Doctorate?"

 

 

 

"Well, that's different. Who do you have in mind?"

 

 

 

"Eleanor Roosevelt, the most admired woman in the world."

 

 

 

B'nai B'rith now is not much of a power, but back then it was hugely influential, especially in liberal and Democratic Party circles, and the local chapter tapped into that stature to have her accept the invitation. The degree was presented on March 1, 1949, and her speech is online at http://news.umanitoba.ca/eleanor-roosevelts-1949-convocation-address/. She was at the time Chairman of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, and is still the biggest "name" to ever be commencement speaker at U of M.

 

 

 

Thus the department was created and the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation came to Fort Garry.

 

 

 

In 1956, Reb Zalman became head of the one-man department and director of the Hillel Foundation, and Hillel found a spot on campus, Reb Zalman's tiny office in the Art Building. When I got to the campus in 1958, I started attending lunchtime discussions in that little space -- often nonsense topics like "The Elephant and the Jewish Question" -- and found the man who would have more influence on my life than any other person in the world.

 

 

 

At first I started doing him little favors, like pickups and deliveries, then helping in the print shop of Hillel House at 67 Edmonton St., and then spending every Shabbos with friends in the North End so we could enjoy Friday evenings at Reb Zalman's house and walk with him to shul and from shul every Saturday morning.

 

 

 

I must have looked like a baby duckling always following the mother duck!

 

 

We talked all the time, and covered topics far from Judaism. And soon I was helping him pursue his far-off dreams of creating a new kind of Jewish life in what he called B'nai Or (Sons of Light), that later morphed into P'nai Or and later ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, I can't tell you how many pages of monographs and other writings we reproduced about these subjects on the Multiliths in the Hillel basement!

 

 

 

Despite his appearance, featuring a yarmulke and beard with tzitzit flying in all directions, he related to university students in an unusually sensitive yet practical way. For example, when we had overnights for Shabbos at the two-storey Hillel House, his mandate was "girls upstairs, boys downstairs, and Rabbi on the stairs."

 

 

 

He could be earthy in surprising ways. When I told him I was becoming engaged to a girl 14 inches shorter than I, he suggested breaking it off and finding someone taller. "With a wife that tiny," he said, "the sex won't be as good."

 

 

 

My wife Brenda Barrie and I were married by Rabbi Perez Weizman in 1963 at the Independent B'nai Abraham Synagogue.  Rabbi Weizman noticed Reb Zalman sitting in the front row and invited him to the bimah; consequently everyone who attended that day -- or sees our wedding album to this day -- thinks that we were married by Reb Zalman. I treasure that version myself!

 

 

 

We met Reb Zalman many times over the years, in places like Indianapolis and Los Angeles, but the best time was the full week we spent with him as our teacher at Camp Camp Elat Chayyim, then in the Catskills. He taught psalms that year, but he had no advance notice that Brenda and I would be there. The first morning, he started the class, then noticed us and stopped, jumped over the first couple of rows of camper and gave us each a huge hug and wonderful welcome.

 

 

 

Perhaps the single best memory of him, however, came back in Winnipeg when Rabbi Neal Rose was serving as interim spiritual leader at Sharrey Zedek and one of his sons became a Bar Mitzvah. Once again he took to the bimah, but of course, the Rabbinic perch there was high above the audience. Arrayed in his gorgeous many-colored tallit and a heavy medallion hanging from his neck, he looked out over the congregation and said in Yiddish, "We have lived so long to see this day."

 

 

 

Revered everywhere

 
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